Before you volunteer to build that school… by Tukeni Obasi | April 24, 2011 | Filed in : Education,International Development,Quick Hits | 0 comments It’s that time of the year again.  When students are looking to find some

Before you volunteer to build that school…

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It’s that time of the year again.  When students are looking to find something that’ll keep them busy during the summer months and corporations and foundations are reviewing summer internships applications.  This is the time when international non-profit organisations begin mass campaigns, distributing flyers and trying to recruit students to take advantage of the “amazing opportunity to go build schools in Africa” and then go hiking or spend a few days touring the country and going to the beach. “Here’s your chance to save the world”, they are sometimes sure to add.

While the idea of  contributing to meaningful development sounds amazing, it is important that students are able to distinguish between tourism-based projects centered around a “saving the world narrative” and more concrete projects with more emphasis on the complexities of development work. After spending more than half the year in school, students should be able to engage in intellectual discussions about development projects and not base decisions solely on sentiments.

Before you commit to any school building project, here as some questions you should ask yourself.

Foremost question: What is this really about? Am I looking for a fun and perhaps responsible/honourable way to spend my holidays or am I truly concerned about development and education. If the answer is the former, book a trip to Disneyland or to a famous tourist resort; donate 100 dollars to your favorite charity; tip the housekeeper  at the hotel or the steward at the restaurant. Done and Done!

If the answer is the latter, here are some more questions you should ask yourself:

  • Have I read about development and education?
  • Do I know the trends- enrollment rate, dropout rate- etc in my destination country?
  • What factors affect the ability of students to achieve quality education?

Once these questions have been answered satisfactorily, call the organisation and ask about the problem and challenges  of education  in this region. If you get answers like “children don’t have books and can’t afford to go to school”, ask the representative if these children sit idly at home or if they are employed in some trade elsewhere or some other form of education. Ask how building a school will provide children with books or pay their school fees. Ask how it will provide incentives to go to school for children who have to feed themselves and cater to other family needs.

If s/he says the problem is that the nearest school is miles away and that building a school will ensure that children in the village have access to education, ask him/her whether this issue has been taken to the local authorities in what way civil society is engaging with institutions to demand access to infrastructure. Inquire if the nearest teacher is also miles away and how building a school will provide teachers, desks, books, and an administrative structure that is not only concerned about quantity but about quality and discipline.

Find out how these teachers will be paid. Some schools that are built during these development projects end up lying fallow or being used as storage barns, secret hideouts or for other purposes because there are no teachers and there is no plan to employ any for the long term. But the structure has already been built and the organisation has managed to convince the volunteers that they are heroes and they saved the world with pictures of them accomplishing the feat. If you are told that there are teachers on ground, ask him/her about their qualifications and whether they have already started teaching or tutoring the children in some capacity, or whether they are simply waiting for you to come and build a school.

If the organisation asks you to bring books from America, ask her about the national curriculum, about the prescribed textbooks for the different subjects that are supposed to be offered at the school and why your donated books are better.

The question you must never forget to ask is: “What happened to the locals? Are the youths there useless?” Always  explain that you have no experience whatsoever in building or construction. Ask him/her if there any local builders on ground, and why they can’t be employed instead.  Surely, some of them must be parents and might need those wages to send their children to school and meet other needs. If this school must be built, won’t it be wise to engage the youths in some legal/ community-oriented activity during the holidays? Might this not serve as some sort of apprenticeship or skills-training program? Ask about the consequences of shipping foreigners to  communities to develop them: Has it made the youths overly reliant on foreign aid? Has it left them out of decisions that directly affect them? Make sure the organisation does not portray people on ground as helpless and useless; waiting for your heroic intervention.

If the one-week hike or stay at the beach at the end of your project keeps being mentioned, you can be sure it’s a bait. Any organisation that has projects “tailored to suit your needs” should be asked why it is “your needs” and not local needs that are of primary concern. Find out where your $3000 is going to and how much of it goes back into advertising and running the NGO. Find out how if the employees also participate in this project or merely travel around the world preaching about “amazing opportunities”. At this point, if your questions have not answered satisfactorily, it is clear that his/her organization has not critically thought about education and development and the most effective ways of promoting both in the destination country and that project is not worth committing to.

Here are some other options:

  1. Look up other organizations (or research institutes) that are involved in more responsible projects.
  2. Look up openings for youth camp counselors or mentors in your area. Find out what local organisations are up to. After all, charity, they say, begins at home.
  3. Find out about regional and international conferences, leadership training programs you might be interested in (let’s start acquiring some of the experience you were required to show at that interview).

It’s important to get involved in development causes but many projects have become mass advertising feel-good money-making ventures that send the wrong ideas to students about development. This trend must be not be encouraged. At this point, it is no longer enough to be be doing something for if you’re not doing it right, the consequences might be dire.

For more on international volunteering overseas, read this really funny but insightful piece from .

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